July 21, 2019
Clad in a yellow tee shirt and a black shorts, a six-year-old child of the Irula tribe at Jambugandi hamlet, near Anaikatti, was running around the narrow lanes of his village when we began speaking to him. We asked him why he wasn’t at school. He went there in the morning and got back. Asked what his father does, the reply was, “My father has gone out of town,” adding that he was staying with his grandparents.
It was only later that JM Murugavelu, the tribal leader of the 24/11 Veerapandi Panchayat told us that the boy’s father who died recently was a chronic alcoholic. The child was completely oblivious of the fact that his father was no more. As the president of the South India Tribal Association, Murugavelu has been battling for years to get his area rid of TASMAC shops. “My tribe will turn extinct if so many die due to alcohol.” He claimed that 20 per cent of women in his hamlet have been widowed because their husbands died of liquor consumption. “I want to protect the next generation,” he said, looking at the six-year-old lamenting that even children were taking to liquor from the TASMAC shops.
Murugavelu had played a pivotal role in getting the infamous Jambugandi TASMAC shop No.2222 closed for the second time after a doctor’s wife was killed by drunk motorists on June 24. Shobhana, the Irula woman was riding a two-wheeler with her daughter.
Massive protests broke out seeking closure of this TASMAC shop, which was once closed in 2016 because of similar protests after numerous deaths and accidents attributed to the outlet. But it was reopened in December 2018 due to “political pressure”. “Now the outlet has been closed temporarily. There are several other TASMAC outlets in and around the 22 hamlets where the Irula tribes reside and all of that should be closed,” he insisted.
The villagers here do not want a wine shop close by, said Sivagami, a resident of 40 years. After the doctor’s wife’s accident, there have been at least four major ones on the same spot. But action seems to be taken only if it is fatal, and protest erupts, she rued.
As per Rule 8 of Tamil Nadu Liquor Retail Vending (Shops and Bars) Rules, 2003, “no liquor shop shall be established in any tribal areas covered under Integrated Tribal Development Project”. But there are TASMAC outlets located within 3 km radius of the tribal hamlets in gross violation to rules.
There are around 1,32,330 Irula tribes in the surrounding areas and most of them are engaged in seasonal occupations such as bricklaying, agriculture and animal husbandry. They earn an average of Rs 200-300 and most, or all, of it goes to TASMAC, adds Murugavelu.
With the help of 40 lawyers associated with tribal welfare, they have moved the court seeking closure of the wine shops in Velliyangaadu, Thulambalayam, Kanuvai, Mangarai, Thaneerpandal, Semmedu, Narasipuram, Thondamuthur, all of which are in close proximity to tribal hamlets, and that too against rules.
“Alcohol is killing the local population, mainly men between 18 and 30 years. As these tribal villages border Kerala, and there is no liquor outlet in the adjoining villages in Kerala ,where it is against the rules to set up liquor shops close to forest areas, there are several people crossing borders to buy and consume liquor. This is resulting in several accidents,” noted activist A Manoj.
Former Superintendent of Police, Coimbatore District, Pandiyarajan had in a letter to the Collector on December 17, 2018, had impressed on the need for the TASMAC shop at Jambugandi to be “permanently closed” because of the number of accidents and also because alcoholics were becoming victims of elephant trampling as they moved around in the late hours.
However, current District Collector K Rajamani in a letter to the National Commission of Schedule Caste (dated April 1, 2019), based on the report submitted by Senior Regional Manager of TASMAC, had surprisingly stated, “The shop was operating peacefully, without hindrance to public and there were no law and order issues.”
Expressing shock and concern, Murugavelu said that such a letter by the Collector to the Commission was causing concern as there was no peace and there had been several protests staged demanding closure of the Jambugandi wine shop. This was four months before doctor Ramesh’s wife Shobhana’s death created a massive outrage with 6,000 tribes squatting on the road demanding that the shop be shut.